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Michael Burton: I Remember

BY Rob Crossan

27th Mar 2023 Life

Michael Burton: I Remember

Sir Michael Burton, 85, is a former British diplomat who served as British Minister in Berlin in the final years of the Cold War

Michael Burton's childhood memories

I was a war-child and grew up in a military family in Camberley. I can remember the thrill of sleeping under the stairs with my brother when the Luftwaffe flew over to bomb the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, which was just down the road.

I also remember the humiliation, due to a misdemeanour on my part, of not being allowed to join my mother on her weekly round on a truck collecting waste paper for the war effort.

"I can remember the thrill of sleeping under the stairs with my brother when the Luftwaffe flew over"

In my last year at school, I played the lead in the school production of Hamlet, directed by a master who I remember was very charismatic. It was a massively enriching and challenging experience.

It also gave me voice training that has stood me in good stead throughout my career. During rehearsals, the master sat at the back of the huge hall and made me repeat any word that did not come out crystal clear.

I completely lived the part for two months and I think that was the time I got rather good at enunciation, which definitely helps these days with my cruise ship talks.

Michael Burton playing Hamlet in school playMichael Burton playing Hamlet in a school production

Training up for diplomatic service

Contrary to many conscripts’ experience, my National Service (as one of the last to be called up) was far from boring.

After basic training and Officer Cadet School, I found myself as a platoon commander in a crack rifle regiment in command of 20 young conscripts of my own age in the Malayan jungle during what they called the “Emergency”, which was basically a communist insurrection.

This was Britain’s equivalent, on a smaller scale, to the Vietnam war—but in our case we won!

Platoon wading through river in Malayan jungleMichael and his platoon deep in the Malayan jungle

My father was a highly decorated retired brigadier. I remember when he called me in when I was in the modern languages sixth form and advised that my skill at languages fitted me for the diplomatic service, although he himself knew little about it. The idea stuck in my head, and that was where I eventually went.

"A fellow student while I was there was the double agent George Blake"

On joining the Foreign Office I was asked to choose a difficult language, so I chose Arabic. That meant attending the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS), a Foreign Office establishment in Lebanon.

It was a very rigorous course, although there were compensations, such as skiing at the Cedars of Lebanon at weekends.

A fellow student while I was there was the double agent George Blake, who returned to London to be interrogated, tried and imprisoned. He escaped and ended up in Moscow, where he eventually died aged 100!

A front seat view of world events

Michael Burton sitting with shaikhs including Shaikh Rashid in Dubai, 1963Michael's language skills took him to Dubai first, where he helped ensure security for the Trucial States

My first diplomatic posting was Dubai but it was absolutely nothing like the Dubai of today. This was before oil production got going, and before the creation of the UAE.

Britain still kept the Gulf as its exclusive preserve in the 1960s and our role was to provide security for the so-called Trucial States and to advise the Rulers on their external affairs. The traditional way of life was little changed at that time and I remember there were hardly any roads.

It was an ideal job for a young political officer, with definite shades of Lawrence of Arabia. The highlight of my time was dealing with a tribal insurrection against one of the Rulers (of Ras al Khaimah), with the help of the Trucial Oman Scouts. It all happened while my boss was on annual leave.

I finally get to use my French language skills in Paris. It was 1969 and President de Gaulle had just resigned. The British embassy’s task was to find a way of getting his successor to set aside the two vetoes that de Gaulle had imposed on Britain joining the EEC (as it was then called).

As the embassy press officer, my job was to make the case for the UK becoming a constructive member of the club.

After the success of our campaign, the Queen and Prince Philip came out on a spectacular royal visit, in the course of which they called, with Prince Charles in tow, on the Duke of Windsor in his villa in the Bois de Boulogne. The Duke was dying and the purpose of the call was really to say goodbye.

My task was to prevent the media from getting wind of this, in order not to cast a shadow over the royal visit. This meant they were denied the historic picture of three generations of British monarchy.

Twice during my Paris posting I attended the Cannes Film Festival as the official British delegate. My wife and I worked with the UK film industry representatives, Leon and Miriam Clore, to support the British entries, not least by giving a popular daily buffet lunch on the beach.

One year my ambassador Christopher (later Lord) Soames also attended, which raised the UK’s profile.

I remember my wife meeting David Lean and she admitted to him that she was very smitten with Christopher Jones, who was in his film Ryan’s Daughter. Lean told her, “I should leave him well alone if I were you—he’s ever so mixed up!”

"My wife and I had a knife-edge encounter late at night with a group of masked and armed fighters"

Back in the Middle East, on the way to my postings to Jordan and then Kuwait, my wife and I had a knife-edge encounter late at night with a group of masked and armed fighters as we drove back up a country mountain road to our hotel, after celebrating our wedding anniversary in Beirut.

They barred our way and stuck a gun through a window of our car—on what would normally be the driver’s side, but since we had a right-hand drive British make, it was my wife whom they confronted.

Having strong nerves, she asked calmly and politely what they wanted. “Turn off your car lights and do not turn them on again until we are out of sight,” was the reply. We complied.

Next day we learned what a close shave we had had. We were told that a UN couple on the same road, faced with the same demand, had reacted angrily, with disastrous consequences: he was shot and his companion raped.

Crowd in Berlin the morning after the Berlin wall came downMichael witnessed first hand the fall of the Berlin Wall

I was the senior British diplomat in West Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. No-one could have predicted that dramatic event at the start of the year.

The first opening of the border, accidental rather than planned, took place in November and the official opening of the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate followed shortly before Christmas. I remember it was delayed by a few hours by news of the flight of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest.

I attended in the hat I reserved for solemn occasions. My wife and two children were also there enjoying the historic moment in pouring rain.

In 1992 I was responsible for arranging the state visit of The Queen and Prince Philip to Eastern Germany and reunified West and East Berlin. Their walk through the Brandenburg Gate— which had been impossible during the 28 years of the Berlin Wall’s existence—was a very highly charged symbolic moment.

I accompanied the Queen as she unveiled a plaque marking the spot where the new British Embassy was to be built, when the German capital returned
to Berlin. She bestowed a knighthood on me at the conclusion of the visit.

I was also responsible for a royal visit in my final post as ambassador to Prague, which was definitely the climax of my career. This time the Queen, at the conclusion of her highly significant visit, unveiled a Henry Moore sculpture I had managed to procure on loan to adorn the embassy garden.

We had to hire a crane to get his “Seated Woman” piece in there but then, just after I left, they had to send it back to England again as the Henry Moore Foundation needed it.

Life after service to the country

I’ve always been driven by a desire to explore the world in all its richness and diversity. At the conclusion of my 37-year-long diplomatic career I’m still continuing this passion through travel, including the 45 cruises that I have been on with my wife as a guest lecturer.

Shanghai was the place that impressed me most; it’s fantastic how the city is just such an incredible forest of skyscrapers but with traditional areas still preserved too.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Diplomatic Service by Sir Michael Burton is published by iB2 Media (£14.95)

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